It was cold, gray and blustery on Monday, but the atmosphere inside the Dodge County Courtroom was warm.
This would be a life-changing day for Cassie and Kyle McAuliffe of Fremont and the three children they were going to adopt.
There were tears, gifts, cake and picture-taking as Crystal, 17, Victor, 9, and Marcus, 6, officially became the McCauliffes’ children.
“This is the best day of my life,” said Marcus, outfitted with his own little bow tie.
Victor hugged his dad’s neck and Crystal, the artist of the group, fought tears when she, like her siblings, each received a colorful canvas with their birth date, the day they moved in with the McAuliffes, and Monday’s court date — now known as “Forever Family Day” for them.
What did their forever parents think?
“It’s wonderful,” Kyle McAuliffe, 27, said. “I’ve got three kids.”
Prior to the court date, Cassie, also 27, described being able to adopt the children as the best Christmas gift ever.
“This will be the highlight present of my life,” she said.
The McAuliffes’ journey toward becoming a family began about two years ago. That’s when the couple, who’ve struggled to get pregnant, started providing respite care for foster families.
“If the family is going out of town and can’t take the kids with them or the foster family just needs a break, the kids will stay at least two nights at another foster home,” Cassie said.
The McAuliffes began providing respite care of Crystal, Victor and Marcus in December 2015 and became friends with the children’s foster parents, Ron and Kelly Patton of Omaha.
A bond began growing between the McAuliffes and the children.
“They’re so incredibly smart,” Cassie said. “Marcus is my little cuddle bug. Victor is a wealth of knowledge about many things. Crystal is a fantastic artist.”
Crystal, who will be a senior at Elkhorn High School, has been accepted to the University of Nebraska at Omaha on a full-ride scholarship based on her academics.
“They’re all so sweet and kind,” Cassie added.
Why would the siblings want the couple to adopt them?
“I guess we’re fun,” Cassie said. “We do fun things. We went camping to South Dakota this summer. We went to Adventureland and to the water park here in town. We do a bunch of fun things together.”
Last December, the siblings learned they were going to be adopted.
The kids asked the McAuliffes to adopt them, but the couple wasn’t sure at that time if the State of Nebraska would move forward with the biological parents’ termination of rights.
“That was really heartbreaking,” Cassie said.
But in January 2017, the first termination hearing took place and the McAuliffes learned the State had chosen them as the adoptive parents. More time passed.
“You have to wait six months to file the adoption petitions and you have to sign a whole packet per child,” Cassie said. “We had to fill out an application out for their new birth certificates since we’re changing their names.”
There have been meetings with a Department of Health and Human Services caseworker and Lutheran Family Services foster care specialist.
The children moved in with the McAuliffes on May 30.
“I’m so excited about the adoption,” Victor told his mom. “I can’t wait.”
Last week, the McAuliffes bought dressy clothes for the children.
The boys were excited about their bow ties.
And although Marcus had a white shirt and a black vest and pants with no jacket, the boy kept telling everyone he had a tuxedo.
The adoptive parents look forward to the times ahead.
“We’ve already seen them grow in the last six months,” Cassie said. “We’re just excited to see where their future is going to take them.”
Cassie encourages others to become foster parents and respite caregivers.
She sees the situation differently from some potential foster parents, worried about becoming attached to children, who then might return to their families.
“You have to be selfless,” Cassie said. “You have to think — there’s a 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old, who has been removed from their family, and how scary is that?
“It’s no longer about you,” she continued. “It’s about these kids.”
Where does someone get that depth?
Cassie credits her own mother, Diane Braun, for being a great person to look up to and for teaching her a lot about life.
Braun was a single mom, who put herself through college while working full time, and now has a double master’s degree. She’s a clinical supervisor for the substance abuse program with Lutheran Family Services.
Cassie worked through college and graduated from Midland University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree. She is a para-professional at Grant Elementary School, an independent Mary Kay beauty consultant, and works for Home Instead Senior Care, assisting senior citizens in their homes. Kyle is employed at Hormel Foods Corp.
The family already has begun making good holiday memories.
“Last weekend, we put up our Christmas tree and all the kids were involved and everybody helped out and I went over to my husband and I said, ‘This is what Christmas is about — seeing the kids get excited and working together and spending time together,’” Cassie said.
Family and friends made more memories as they gathered in the Dodge County Courtroom on Monday.
“I’m very proud of her (Cassie) and her husband,” Braun said. “They have lots of love to give.”
The McAuliffes’ pastor, the Rev. Roger Luiken of Liberty Baptist Church, and his wife, Wanda, smiled continuously.
“It’s going to be a nice family,” the local pastor said. “We’re so excited for the kids.”
“We think it’s wonderful,” Wanda Luiken said. “They’re smart kids. Cassie and Kyle have wanted kids for a long time and they love doing all the fun things with them.”
Dodge County Judge Ken Vampola asked each of the children if they knew why they were in the courtroom and if they wanted the McAuliffes to adopt them — which they all did.
“Let the record reflect that the court is signing the adoption degrees,” Vampola said, before the children received their special canvasses.
Vampola passed out tissues to teary-eyed family members, before letting Victor and Marcus sit in the judge’s chair. The boys got to take turns wearing the judge’s robe, while having their photos taken.
Family photos followed.
“Adoptions are the best thing a county judge gets to do, because so many court proceedings are negative and conflicted, and adoptions are pure joy,” Vampola said.
Attorney Leta Fornoff, the children’s guardian ad litem, smiled a lot.
“I think they (the children) touched the hearts of everyone they’ve come in contact with, because of who they are and how they’ve handled everything — everything they’ve gone through in their young lives,” Fornoff said.
After the proceedings, Victor and Marcus played with toys that had been atop the cakes. Victor isn’t sure what he wants to be when he grows up, but Crystal said Marcus has talked about becoming a NASCAR driver.
Crystal, who will be an arts major at UNO, dreams of working for Disney.
“I’m extremely happy,” the teen said of the adoption. “It’s been such a long journey that I’m glad it’s ending in such a positive way.”
And although skies outside were gray, if courtroom indications were any prediction of the future, the three children and their parents have many sunny days ahead.
“We still plan to foster more kids,” Cassie said. “And if God has for us to adopt more kids or to have our own biologically, we’ll just keep going.”